The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Minds—& What Interferes with Them

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here The Philosophy of Schizophrenia, a lecture Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall in 1947. Part of Mr. Siegel’s greatness as philosopher is his discovery and understanding of that way of seeing in every person which interferes with our lives; which is the source of all unkindness; which always weakens our minds and, if present with sufficient fullness, can do so catastrophically. This way of seeing is contempt: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

In the present journal, beginning in 1975, he gave rich documentation for his finding that “contempt causes insanity and...interferes with mind in a less disastrous way. Contempt is the great failure of man.” In issue after issue for many years he presented evidence, explanation, illustration. The scope of his material was vast. It included psychiatric case studies, but also world literature and history. He wrote, for example, about Dostoyevsky, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Hawthorne, Poe, and that great sanity which is art. And he wrote, definitively, about the cause of Nazism, and of all prejudice. Always, his writing was clear, graceful, and powerful; often there was humor.

Those qualities are also in the spoken prose of the 1947 lecture. It is one in a series of talks that he was giving, and we publish it from notes taken at the time by Martha Baird. Since Mr. Siegel refers to the two aspects of self, or the two selves, but does not in this lecture explain what they are, I’ll say something about that fundamental idea.

Every person will recognize that we have a self within, which seems just ours, apart from everything. We also have a self that has to do with people and things and that wants to know and be affected by the world. We’re like a circle: we have a center, as inner as can be; but from it we have radii that go forth. Contempt makes the two aspects of self fight. It says that the way to care for and glorify that precious center is to make less of what’s beyond it.

Some Symptoms, Looked At

To relate the 1947 lecture on schizophrenia to the present moment, I go to a popular website: Sixty-three years after Mr. Siegel gave this talk, psychiatry still does not understand why people have mental distress, whether severe or less severe. That is because psychiatry does not understand the human self. So we read on

Experts don’t know what causes schizophrenia.... Family history may play a role...but most people who have a family member with schizophrenia don’t develop it....It’s possible that neurotransmitters...don’t work the right way in people with schizophrenia.

We have “don’t know” and “may” and “it’s possible.” And, in all politeness, it would seem that if persons don’t know, one should stop calling them “experts.”

I’ll comment on some “symptoms” described on this website, to point to what Mr. Siegel has explained: that a schizophrenic person does with a certain fullness what all people do in fragments, and that these ways, which we all have, are forms of contempt.

1) WebMD notes that some persons with schizophrenia have “bizarre behaviors.” It gives this example, apparently based on observation: a person “may wear aluminum foil in the belief that it will stop one’s thoughts from being broadcast and protect against malicious waves entering the brain.”

Well, this may be “bizarre,” but what it shows is that the person wants an utter separation between himself and the world. He uses aluminum foil to insist that his private thoughts should be just private—the outside world is not good enough to have them. And he uses the foil to say that the world is replete with malice and must not get into him!

2) The writers of the WebMD article do not see the relation between that “bizarre behavior” and another symptom, which they list as “cognitive”: the schizophrenic, they say, can have “difficulties attending to and processing of information” [sic].

This “information” comes from, and is part of, what’s not ourselves. We will not give our attention to the outside world’s information if we’ve felt that the way to be ourselves is to be separate from a world not good enough for us. In order to “process” this foreign information we have to take it inside of us, and if we feel we should be unsullied by the world, we just won’t let it in! So the non-attending and non-processing and the aluminum foil are parts of the same thing: contempt for reality different from oneself.

Everyone is somewhat against “attending to and processing... information.” At a dinner table tonight an exasperated wife will ask her husband, “Haven’t you been paying attention to what I’ve been saying?!” He hasn’t. Meanwhile, she regularly does him the favor of completing his sentences: she feels she doesn’t have to “attend” to what he might say—she’s got him summed up. Both husband and wife have, along with devotion, the contemptuous sense that the other, who stands for the outside world, is not entirely worth hearing.

Also, all over America people are smiling and nodding in social situations while really not listening to the other people. The reason is: one feels, without articulating it, “The important conversation is the one I have with just me. I should be able to annul another person anytime I please.”

Are We For or Against Relation?

3) WebMD notes that a person who is “schizoid” has an “almost complete lack of interest in social relationships” and appears “cold and aloof.” This description contains, in the word relationships, the tremendously important word relation.

There are millions of non-schizophrenic people who—while they may have a busy social life and may send text messages abundantly—nevertheless do not feel they are deeply related to the people they meet and laugh with and work with and text. Most people don’t feel that what goes on inside them is like what goes on in others. And so most people think, truly, there is something “cold and aloof” in themselves.

A schizophrenic person is thorough in his feeling not related to anyone. A non-schizophrenic, while feeling somewhat connected to certain people, usually has the sense, mainly unarticulated, that ever so many others are just not good enough to be like him. This is ordinary contempt. The victory of feeling unrelated is also the basis of all racism: “I’m Somebody, I’m superior, through feeling that this person, who looks different, is not like me—doesn’t have the same humanity I have!”

The contempt of feeling unrelated is the basis too of economic cruelty. If you see a person as having emotions as deep and wide as your own, you cannot think of that person in terms of, “How can I make as much money as possible from this guy?”

While Eli Siegel was the person to understand the most hurtful thing in self, contempt, he was also the person to show that the deepest desire of everyone is against contempt. This deepest desire is to be ourselves through honestly liking the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Philosophy of Schizophrenia

By Eli Siegel

Schizophrenia is something which, whether we know it or not, we fear most and the solution of which we hope for most. It is present in a less decided form in every person. The severity of anyone’s nervousness can be judged by its closeness to the falsely quiet situation which schizophrenia seems to be.

The word schizophrenia is supposed to mean split mind. This idea has many meanings. All of us have different moods. If there were no “split” between them, the different moods wouldn’t seem to be so bad. We have to look at the word split.

Aesthetic Realism sees schizophrenia as the obverse side of that which is art. In art we can have two states of mind—for instance, a state of great indifference and a state of great excitement, as in Harpo Marx, who has a way of being deadpan and at the same time making mischief with a fierce energy. Also in comedy we have Red Skelton, who goes through all sorts of contortions, and we have Buster Keaton, whose face might as well be of lead sometimes for all that’s shown on it. Both Red Skelton and Buster Keaton can be funny. We feel the sense of activity and the sense of restraint can somehow be unified and useful. But in schizophrenia the argument is that these things have to be against each other.

Everyone is afraid, to some extent, of the excitement in the world. The schizophrenic has made what is a possibility, a mood in most people, into a constant principle. He says, “To hell with the outside world. I can be an individual and important by dismissing it.” It follows that if we don’t feel the outside world is friendly, we are that much schizophrenic. The schizophrenic achieves individuality—to put it philosophically— by annihilating the non-ego. He goes pretty much the whole way. If it were really the whole way, there wouldn’t be any possibility of change, which I think exists. A schizophrenic would rather have all of half of himself than, say, three quarters of all of himself in process.

We shouldn’t see schizophrenia as apart from ordinary nervousness or depression. Insofar as two selves in us are fighting, one self is trying to get rid of the other. In the schizophrenic, the self as center, the self within, contemptuously apart from outside things, has become the victor. Schizophrenia can be defined as the victory of contempt. But even where there is not schizophrenia, contempt is always in there pitching.

The fight either takes on a quality of getting rid of one of the selves, or it takes on an aesthetic quality, which settles the fight through rhythm, as that between soft notes and loud in a symphony. Insofar as we don’t settle the fight in ourselves through rhythm, we settle it by one self’s taking over the other, or we go on fighting. The solution is aesthetic, the oneness of sameness and difference, in which both selves are the same and also different.

Schizophrenia is the thing people have always fought. Shakespeare fought it, Goethe, Beethoven, Schopenhauer; Nietszche fought it to a loss. In a nervous person, the fight is still going on, and has very often come to a feverish draw. The self that sees itself as related, that wants to like the world, has not completely won either. Where it has, a person is that much an artist—which is a difficult order.

She Looked at Contempt

A poem by Christina Rossetti, “Who Shall Deliver Me?,” written in the 1860s, has a decided relation to the subject:

God strengthen me to bear myself;

That heaviest weight of all to bear,

Inalienable weight of care.


All others are outside myself;

I lock my door and bar them out,

The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.


I lock my door upon myself,

And bar them out; but who shall wall

Self from myself, most loathed of all?...*

This is a good poem, and in its way expresses something that has gone on a long while: the fight in self. In order to understand schizophrenia, it is apparent that one must understand the self and the fight in it. To superficialize this fight, to treat it as a matter of regressions, traumas, compulsions, etc., is to put most schizophrenics in a state of having fooled their doctors. Inadequacy of knowledge can exist in many ways. But I don’t think schizophrenia can be understood unless this poem and others like it are understood.

How is it that a self which wants to please itself, be nice to itself, can also say of itself, “Oh, you miserable scoundrel”? This is one of the large mysteries. In schizophrenia there is a tremendous self-loathing. Unless we are ready to see in a complete fashion how the self can like itself no end and loathe itself no end, we won’t understand the conscious and unconscious sufficiently.

False Freedom & Burden

In the first stanza we have “that heaviest weight of all.” The schizophrenic feels some burden is present. That is because he has come to a lightness and seeming freedom which is also slavery. While we want to be what we are through knowing, there’s always a temptation to become ourselves through getting rid of everything else. A decision in favor of this trend is schizophrenia. When there is such a tendency, one also feels that through the false freedom one’s possibilities have been given up.

Christina Rossetti’s poem is lovely. But take a common occurrence in an asylum: a housewife comes to an Ohio institution and tries to become a ball in the corner, underneath a blanket. It’s a pretty ugly thing. She sometimes says everyone is against her but God. God at that time comes to be oneself.

Christina Rossetti says she’s aware that she locks her door against people. Everybody does that. People who are not “sick” also want to go into themselves. They play both sides. If you play both sides too furiously, you get disturbed, but everybody plays both sides to some extent.

Aesthetic Realism says the only way to get to integration of the two selves is through aesthetics. Otherwise you’ll have to get rid of one of them or come to a wavering compromise. The schizophrenic has settled the fight, in his fashion: “I want to go into the hidden treasure chest of my own ego.” Unless he can see a way of having his ego and liking the outside world too, he’ll go after having his ego alone. Aesthetics is the saying that you can be personal only by being impersonal too, as in art; that you are concentrated and expansive at once—you can touch the roof of your mouth and think of Louis XIV at the same time. That is why the motto of Aesthetic Realism is “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.”

Christina Rossetti says she wants to put out “the turmoil, tedium, gad-about.” The schizophrenic has made this a principle: “Universe, you may be all right for others, but you’re a mess for me.” Then he glorifies his ineffable inwardness by dismissing everything outside him. Other people sometimes get sleepy, or just sit with their eyes closed to show they’re bored. A woman told me that in college she had to find a pretext for going back to her room every afternoon to take a nap for 15 minutes, even if she had to leave a party to do so.

Then, Self-Dislike

“But who shall wall / Self from myself, most loathed of all?” When the schizophrenic says the center of the circle is the whole circle, he’s making a philosophic mistake. The self isn’t that way. Something in us knows we are in relation. The schizophrenic comes to a feeling of victory by denying the outside world, but then there comes a feeling that he has also denied himself, that the outside world is also himself, that there can be no center without a circumference. So the schizophrenic punishes himself, calls himself the vilest, most wretched of persons. Then, after he has punished himself awhile, he can go back to the triumph. This goes on, back and forth. The victory of the schizophrenic is also his disgrace.

In schizophrenia—which includes paranoia, the manic-depressive, dementia praecox, etc.—you have the greatest self-satisfaction and the greatest self-loathing. Sometimes there’s a desire to be very nice to people because you feel so guilty. The fight is terrible. It can become so great that you get to be—stupefied. There’s a sense of triumph and a sense of loss. The thing you run away from is what you want most.

We can all be too self-condemnatory and we can all be complacent. Everyone to a degree likes himself for the wrong reasons and dislikes himself for the wrong reasons. Christina Rossetti saw this, and expressed it sincerely.

The Principle of Life

Later there is the phrase “death runs apace.” In death we can find a relation to schizophrenia. The purpose of life is to increase our excitement about life and, through that, our sense of our own definition—not have the excitement run down. In the schizophrenic it has run down. This has a relation to death in the bad sense, with the contracting, withering, we may see in the very old. We find this idea in Tithonus, who became a grasshopper because he was so conceited. There’s a relation of the running down of a clock to schizophrenia.

There’s a certain impulsion that we’re born with to enjoy the world. In our first years it is strongest. Later it may get corrupted. Many people who are outwardly doing very well have that energy to enjoy the world lessened.

The schizophrenic is one who has dismissed the outside world pretty completely. When we make two selves, one under the skin and one which is in relation, we are in schizophrenic territory. The schizophrenic is the radical of the contemptuous unconscious. He’s consistent. He sticks to his principles. He does none of that wavering.

Aesthetic Realism deals with the desire, which should be in everyone, to put together the intimate and the wide. We have to accept our lives as meaning that we become ourselves by being fair to all that is not ourselves. If people know about Aesthetic Realism, the schizophrenic choice will be made less.

*Mr. Siegel read all of the poem’s 8 stanzas.